This past weekend I visited a friend in Vienna, which is an easy five-hour bus ride from Prague. And for nearly the entirety of my time in the city, as the title of this post suggests, Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” was playing in my head.
Austria has a strong economy and an exceptionally high standard of living. The United Nations, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and the International Atomic Energy Commission all have headquarters in Vienna. Besides touring the capital city, visitors use Vienna as a base for sightseeing around the Austrian countryside, and as the arrival point for trips to the country’s famed ski resorts.
But Austria, particularly Vienna, used to be so much more. The Habsburg dynasty, the rulers of Austria for centuries, presided over an empire that included Hungary, Bohemia, northern Italy, the Holy Roman Empire and parts of the Balkans- a big slice of Europe. Vienna was the center of the Habsburg domain, and it was clear to me from the second I arrived that Vienna wasn’t built for the present-day little country of eight million people.
Vienna is, in a word, opulent. Wherever you go, especially in the center of the city, you see wide boulevards, neatly designed public parks, and palatial baroque buildings. It’s a city appropriate for kings, for the seat of a world empire. It’s a city for men like Metternich to wield power over an entire continent. It’s a city for artists like Gustav Klimt and Otto Wagner, for composers like Gustav Mahler and Franz Schubert. It’s not a city for a country that has only the 23rd highest GDP in the world.
The discrepancy between Vienna past and Vienna present was illustrated Thursday night, when my friend and I walked past the magnificent Parliament building. My friend told me at length about the history of the building and the history of the government itself.
“Cool,” I said. “Who’s the president now?”
He shrugged. “No clue.”
This coming from a guy who talk for hours about the policies of Nicholas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel.
I’m sure some of you are thinking I’m being unfair to Austria and Vienna and diminishing the country’s contemporary importance. If so, try thinking up a list of Austrians from previous centuries. Chances are a lot of names will immediately come to mind, Mozart, Freud and Franz Ferdinand among them. Then try to come up with a list of Austrians alive today. And Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t count.